Two ‘Queens’ in wartime

During 1941 our cruiser HMS Hermione achieved four convoy runs through to Malta from Gibraltar, as well as a number of ‘club runs’ with carriers for the purpose of keeping the beleaguered island supplied with aircraft.

It therefore came as something as a shock to be torpedoed and sunk on our first attempt to get through from Alexandria and, finding myself more or less at a loose end in Alex in late June 1942, I felt some relief at being drafted to the elderly battleship Queen Elizabeth, particularly as Rommel’s army was expected to overrun Egypt at the time.

My new appointment was not in first-class condition, having been resting on the harbour bottom for some time, together with HMS Valiant, following the attention of Italian frogmen. I formed part of a scratch crew destined to take the vessel to the United States for a refit, not that the destination would be disclosed for awhile.

At various points while passing through Suez we were being jeered by members of shore-stationed forces who assumed that we were running from imminent danger. We were hardly fit for battle (with one boiler room out of action the Queen Elizabeth’s best speed was 15 knots!).

Progress towards the Cape seemed painfully slow, with a stop at Port Sudan to replace our ammunition. Upon making
Freetown, the prospect of a three-week trip across to Virginia, unescorted, was viewed with trepidation, but in the event the only panic was mistaking a mid-Atlantic whale for a U-boat.

At the American naval yard we were transferred to a barrack section which would be our heme for six weeks. Those premises and the catering represented real luxury to us, with good entertainment frequently available. Seeing so many of the latest films meant that for some time after returning to England there were few good ones I hadn’t seen before.

The highlight of my American stay was a steamer trip along the Potomac to Washington, where a lavish guided tour was laid on for our benefit. Next came lunch and tea at the Press Club, where we faced a barrage of questions mainly concerned with conditions in our bomb-rav-aged homeland. The good weather that September added to our enjoyment, with well-stocked stores allowing some of us to replace presents and other things which had been confined to the deep. Fortunately our meagre pay was reinforced for the duration of our stay.

When it was time for the return trip I was lucky again, because at the time all manner of vessels were being prepared to brave the Atlantic and join the huge fleet about to mount the North African invasion. Some of my mates were drafted to small vessels which foundered in a series of fierce storms, I was told. I happened to
be one of a party which boarded a train and headed northwards for the next three days. We passed through New York and Boston en route, but managed to see the lights of those cities only from station platforms.

Our train crossed the Canadian border, and the journey ended at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the quayside was dwarfed by the largest liner afloat at the time, the Cunarder Queen Elizabeth, which I boarded along with thousands of other troops and civilian war personnel from all nations.

For the crossing I was allocated a bunk in what had been the first class cinema, the tiered bunks replacing what would have been luxurious fittings. We were provided with two reasonably good meals each day, the worst privation being a drastic shortage of fresh water. The zig-zag crossing, accomplished in four days at an average of 29 knots, took us a fair way northwards before reaching our destination on the Clyde near Glasgow, and must have been one of the smoothest on record, because I felt ship movement only when the vessel was changing course. On board it had proved only too easy to get lost amid the miles of standardised corridors.

Altogether my Atlantic crossings provided experiences I’d have hated to miss. Not everyone can boast of making the crossings in two such famous ‘Queens’!

Don Bishop